Don't Panic: Teenagers Stranded Alone in Airports Will Live

01/20/2013 12:25 EST | Updated 03/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Wednesday's story about an Air Canada flight being delayed by weather and leaving a 13-year-old passenger overnight at Toronto's Pearson airport with nothing more than a $10 food voucher should not be read as a warning for parents to purchase the hand-holding Unaccompanied Minor (UM) service for their independently travelling teenagers.

The boy's grandfather, Steve Cunningham, is absolutely correct that an Air Canada agent is supposed to look after unaccompanied youth passengers whose flights have been subject to weather delays. It's stated clear as day on their website:

"What services does Air Canada provide to my child who is travelling alone to ensure his or her safety when a flight is delayed? ... Youths travelling alone (ages 12 to 17), for whom the parent or guardian has not requested the Unaccompanied Minor service, will be taken care of by our agents. We will also arrange for accommodations, meals and transportation if needed."

Leaving the kid alone was obviously Air Canada's goof, as was their spokesperson's "family blaming" statement that perhaps the family should have opted for the UM service if they weren't happy with the treatment (or lack thereof) the boy received; insinuating that basically that's what it's there for.


The UM service is there for children who are too young or too uncomfortable to confidently navigate airport hallways and gates such that they can be sure to get on and off their flights okay. It's not there to protect against poor customer service in the event of an 8-hour weather delay.

That said, it's still important to reiterate that the boy, while certainly inconvenienced and perhaps somewhat disconcerted about being on his own in an airport at night, was safe. It's not by definition a traumatic or "bad" thing for kids to be exposed to uncomfortable situations every now and again, or to be subject to something outside of their comfort zone. That's how kids learn to flex their coping muscles, to adapt to new circumstances, to gain confidence in their ability to handle adverse situations. Who knows, the boy may have gotten a kick out of being able to spend his food voucher on whatever he wanted -- no adults to tell him he had to eat something with veggies. And I bet he feels just a little bit proud -- as he should -- that he handled the situation well and on his own.

That's not to say Air Canada is off the hook. It's simply to say let's not blow the harm factor out of proportion. Lenore Skanazy from Free Range Kids makes the point well:

"[I]t must be rotten to spend the night in an airport chair along with, one presumes, some other stranded passengers. But it's not dangerous .... At 13, kids around the world are holding down jobs, traveling long and dangerous distances, taking care of younger siblings and sometimes bearing children of their own. A night in a plastic chair is not fun (though in the right circumstances, it can be). But if this is news, soon we'll be reading about 15-year-olds forced to wait over an hour for a ride home from the mall when mom's dentist appointment runs late."
The bottom line is that this is not a story because of which we need to become alarmed about the safety of children flying on airplanes alone. It's just a story that reminds us flying can be a "pain in the you know what." It also reminds us that when the carriers we choose to fly with fall short of their customer service promises to minimize that "pain in the you know what" element, well that ultimately ends up being good for the competition.

I don't know about you, but I'm putting my money on the Cunninghams flying West Jet from here on in.

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